Gandhi’s patriotism was a model for practice of true secularism

On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti, SEEMA SINDHU writes about the political differences between Mahatma Gandhi and Dr B.R. Ambedkar, and the ideals of secularism that Gandhi espoused during India’s freedom struggle.


WHEN Kanhaiya Kumar joined the Indian National Congress party last week, he presented to Rahul Gandhi a picture of contradictions – Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh all in one frame. Undeniably, politics is as much about perceptions as about ideology. But history testifies that Gandhi and Ambedkar cannot be perceived to be sharing one photo frame, let alone any semblance of ideology. One can either be Gandhi or Ambedkar, but never both.

Differences between Gandhi and Ambedkar

Gandhi and Ambedkar had irreconcilable differences over very fundamental issues of religion and caste. Swaraj probably wouldn’t have been possible had Gandhi not coerced Ambedkar into signing the Poona Pact in 1932 which led to the abandoning of separate electorates for Depressed Classes (as the Scheduled Castes were then referred). This was when the struggle for Independence had started weakening due to the demand for a separate country based on religion by M.A. Jinnah.

The divine strength of Mahatma perhaps rested in his clear, immediate priorities, rather than the stubborn idealism which lighted Ambedkar. In an article in his weekly English newspaper Harijan in 1939, Gandhi wrote:

“I know that many have been angry with me for claiming an exclusive right for Congress to speak for the people of India as a whole. It is not an arrogant pretension. It is explicit in the first article of the Congress. It wants and works for independence for whole of India. It speaks neither for majority nor minority. It seeks to represent all Indians without any distinction. Therefore those who oppose it shouldn’t count, if the claim for independence is admitted. Those who support the claim simply give added strength to Congress claim … In other words and in reality, so far as India is concerned, there can only be political parties and no majority and minority communities. The cry of the tyranny of the majority is a fictitious cry.”

Unfortunately, post-independence, Congress has frequently resorted to extreme minority appeasement for electoral considerations, of which the Mahatma would have never approved.

Also read: Gandhi predicted communal discord would poison education, distort history

In contrast to Gandhi, Ambedkar kept the political interests of the Depressed classes over the goal of swaraj. In his undelivered speech titled ‘Annihilation of Caste’ in 1936, which he was supposed to delivered at a conference by the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal [Society for the Break-Up of Caste System], at Lahore, and later published, he wrote in the concluding para:

“Yours (Jat-Pat Todak Mandal) is more difficult than the other national cause, namely, swaraj. In the fight for swaraj you fight with the whole nation on your side. In this (forum for breaking of caste), you have to fight against the whole nation – and that too, your own. But it is more important than Swaraj. There is no use having a swaraj, if you can not defend it. More important than the question of defending swaraj is the question of defending the Hindus under swaraj. In my opinion, it is only when Hindu society becomes a casteless society that it can hope to have strength enough to defend itself.”

By the grace of the Constitution and ordinary wisdom of our countrymen, we have defended swaraj exceptionally well against various threats such as the Emergency, the Khaliastan movement, the Babri Masjid demolition, and the various tragic communal riots that our country has witnessed. The peace and the grace with which the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya judgment was accepted invalidates Ambedkar’s notion that India would be incapable of defending swaraj without separate electorates.

Ambedkar’s idea of caste annihilation could not be tested on the scale of execution, but Mahatma’s idea of ‘varna reformation’ is doing steadily well, as demonstrated by the steadfast and robust affirmative action provisions prescribed in our Constitutional and statutory provisions.

Ambedkar espoused the annihilation of a system in an abrupt manner. Gandhi, though, was astute to know that a system is first to be challenged, then weakened, and then left to die naturally. Perhaps that is why reservation of seats in legislatures and educational institutions for Depressed Classes was kept, and separate electorates were abandoned.

Also read: On the Trajectory Shown by Ambedkar

Gandhi called Ambedkar “a challenge to Hinduism”. Ambedkar indicted the Hindu religion for entrenching caste and caste-based persecution; to this, Gandhi had a more rational view. In response to Ambedkar’s ‘Annihilation of Caste’ speech, Gandhi wrote:

“Caste has nothing to do with religion. It is a custom whose origin I do not know, and do not need to know for the satisfaction of my spiritual hunger. But I do know that it is harmful for both spiritual and national growth. Varna and Ashrama are institutions which have nothing to do with castes.”

On Ambedkar’s indictment of Hindu religion, Mahatma had said, “A religion has to be judged not by its worst specimens, but by the best it might have produced.”

Also read: The Journey from S.R. Bommai vs. Union of India to Javed vs. State of UP

Gandhi’s secularism

Gandhi had the vision to invoke religion in politics as a unifying force, rather than a divisive tact. He knew that the struggle for Independence warranted unity of religion and castes, not separate electorates. He managed to seek support of the Congress party for the Khilafat movement because he saw a great opportunity in it for Hindu-Muslim unity which was a sine qua non for a mass struggle for Independence.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak was opposed to it because it would look like an alliance with Muslims over a religious issue, and Congress too sat on the fence. However, Gandhi was quick to use the opportunity to build a mass movement in his pursuit of the supreme goal of swaraj.

Myopic politicians and political parties forget that a religion can’t be secular because a religion’s conviction is to itself. It is the State which is enjoined to be secular. To be secular, a party is not required to harp on minorities ad nauseam; the head of the State is not required to wear the traditional attire of any religion on the occasion of a religious festive because they have no religion as a State head.

It is enough for them to maintain a religion their faith summons in personal life, like Mahatma, and be secular in political disposition without deriding any community to appease others. They need not show a superficial allegiance to a religion which they don’t profess in their personal life.

Former Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court M.C. Chagla, who held quite a few coveted Union Minister posts in his career, wrote in his autobiography:

“I have, therefore, often strongly disagreed with the government policy of constantly harping upon minorities, minority status and minority rights. It comes in the way of national unity and emphasises the differences between the majority and the minority community. Of course, it may serve well as a vote catching device to win Muslim votes, but I don’t believe in sacrificing national interests in order to get temporary party benefits such as getting a few more seats in certain constituencies.

The Congress government has also often followed what I can only call the British policy of communalism. In my view, if it is communalism to pass over and ignore a man with merit simply because he happens to be Muslim or a Christian or a Parsi, it is also communalism to appoint a person merely because he happens to be a Muslim or a member of some other minority community.”

Also read: The complexity of understanding Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi was perhaps the archetype of true patriotism – a man who was Hindu to his core in his personal conviction, yet flawlessly secular in his political disposition. For him religion, was a personal means to a spiritual end, and not a political means to gain power or win elections. “Hey Ram” was the outcome of a personal conviction and not political tokenism.

He unflinchingly supported secularism in governance by saying “so far as India is concerned, there can only be political parties and no majority and minority communities”.

(Seema Sindhu is a journalist turned lawyer currently practising at the Supreme Court. The views expressed are personal.)